BOOK AND SOFTWARE REVIEWS
Duff, Alastair S. A normative theory of the information society. Oxford: Routledge, 2013. xxvi. 130 pp. ISBN: 978-0-415-95571-3. £85.00
Alastair Duff has written an ambitious, exciting and important book. It is a text that deserves to be widely read and the somewhat dry title will perhaps be an obstacle. Texts by normative philosophers are frequently produced at a distance from real-world practices. The purpose is often to contribute to academic philosophical discussions rather than guide human activities. In the act of highlighting normative philosophy in the title, it is quite possible that Duff has scared away many potential readers. Duff is, indeed, working within the conventions of normative philosophy, therefore aiming at clarification of concepts and ideas. However, he also utilizes many other tools. He is broadly oriented within social philosophy, social theory, Internet studies and mass media studies. This supplies unique resources in taking on the focus of this book: information society studies.
The starting point of the book is crucial not only for the later chapters but also for our society as a whole. We can now clearly acknowledge that the information society thesis, i.e., society switching to an informational mode, is supported by available data. Duff argues that Internet society studies can therefore move on to the next big questions: what are the social-ethical and policy implications of living in this kind of society? From this perspective we are now moving from the existential crisis of coming to terms with a different kind of society and into a normative crisis.
This normative crisis both succeeds the existential crisis and throws into sharp relief the policy problematics that have been anticipated since the beginning of the post-industrial age (p. 7).
This is, therefore, the vital issue that the book pursues: now that we know that we are living in an information society, what kind of world do we want it to be? Duff is very distinct in his ambition to work with norms as a tool, rather than laws (too strict) or values (too individual). Norms are seen as anchored in culture, morality or religion. Normative traditions were formed during industrialism such as liberalism and socialism but no such normative framework has so far been advanced for the information age.
What then of the well-established normative traditions? Can these be useful for our development of a normative theory adequate for the information society? Duff identifies three different traditions: utopian, conservative and critical and makes short work of them. They are, in various ways, found wanting, characterized as dead ends. What Duff instead chooses to pursue is an updated version of a theory of social justice and social democracy originally (but separately from each other) developed by John Rawls and Richard Henry Tawney. Although these philosophers did not concern themselves with information, Duff argues that a combination of their work is a fruitful platform for developing a normative theory for our times. The outcome of this synthesizing work is what Duff calls the Rawls-Tawney Theorem consisting of two principles of information justice. Briefly put, these allow information to be an important aspect of justice and democracy in society. The distribution of socially valuable information is in this way closely connected to the ideal of equal civil and political liberties.
A Normative theory of the information society is a short book spanning some 130 pages plus an extensive bibliography. It is clearly structured in four chapters. Chapter 1 articulates the need for normative theory. The second chapter is a philosophical discussion on the possibility of rethinking social democracy, tweaking Rawls and Tawney so as to be relevant for the information society. Chapter 3 moves into an in-depth discussion on how the Rawls-Tawney Theorom can be understood as a normative presence in contemporary society. Finally, chapter 4 takes this discussion one step further as Duff queries if it is possible to combine a normative theory of the information age with the strong instruments of social engineering. The Rawls-Tawney Theorom implies various prescriptions for reshaping social distribution of resources. This leads Duff to, with eyes wide open, move into the troubled waters of social engineering. Duff argues that this is a methodology which not only has had failures and that it is possible to modify social engineering by learning from past mistakes. Surprisingly enough, it is only in the last paragraphs of the chapter (and book) that Duff refers to the ideas of Alvin Weinberg on technology replacing social engineering. It could be argued that the boardrooms of corporations such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple have been and are pursuing activities that can be described as social engineering. Shouldn't we allow governments to balance this?
As remarked initially in this review, this is a highly ambitious book. Each of these chapters could very well have been a book in its own right. It is perhaps both strength and weakness to have all of this compressed in one volume. Chapters 1 and 4 are highly relevant for a broad readership. Furthermore, the sharp analytical penmanship of Duff makes for engaging and informative reading concerning vital issues of our times. It is difficult to disagree with the main thrust of his argument. Nevertheless, with chapter 2 and 3 Duff answers his own questions and pursues one specific alternative of normative theory. Although the scholarship remains impressive in these sections, the discussion also becomes more technical in the philosophical sense. Not all readers will be able to follow the line of reasoning in these chapters and many who do will disagree with the direction that Duff takes.
Although I found chapters 2 and 3 of great value, I cannot help but feel it would have been more useful to work with these in reverse. Duff uses, in this case, the conventional philosophical top-down approach of formulating sound philosophical principles (chapter 2) and follow this up with application in practical situations (chapter 3). Given the complexities of the information society and the ongoing transformation of technological context (cloud computing, Internet of things, social media etc.) I think it would be more fruitful to start with practical situations and allow these to inspire us to develop norms in the language of lay people. With time, the multitude of such norms developed bottom-up could be used as a basis for philosophy and normative theory.
Having said that, this fine book is surely inspirational for the development of norms for individuals, institutions, research and politics. Duff has made a distinct and substantial contribution to not only information society studies but also to neighboring research fields. A malaise in contemporary social science is the inability to position research within a broader understanding of what digital technology is allowing us to do with society. Duff has written a book on the big picture, clearly articulating urgent issues of our time from an insightful and sophisticated position.